What Makes the Vancouver Special So Special?

"This rectangle with a half-assed roof must have spoken to people."

February 23, 2018

By Stacey McLachlan / Photo: Byron Eggenschwiler

With the abundance of new starchitect-designed skyscrapers jostling for space like so many damp B-Line passengers, it might be easy to forget our city’s true architectural legacy: the humble, stucco-encrusted Vancouver Special. Though the original designer’s name has been lost to history, the home is so simplistic that one assumes it was a second-grader who sketched out a rectangle with a half-assed roof and called it a day.

But this rectangle with a half-assed roof must have spoken to people: from 1965 to 1985, over 10,000 homes were built with those same Vancouver Special plans. For comparison’s sake, during that same time period, the number of people who built the home I designed, “Modern-Meets-Rococo-Castle-with-Waterslide,” was zero. Was it because I never “drew up blueprints” or because I wasn’t technically “born yet”? We may never know.

Where Do Those Crows Go Each Night?

Some Vancouver Specials went up in just three weeks—faster than it took me to stop procrastinating and finish this article. These two-storey bad boys maximized square footage on the lot (with room for plenty of extended family) and were built with cost-effective materials—excellent news for new immigrants, working-class folks and stucco fans everywhere. Plans were only $65 back then; today, accounting for inflation, that would be the equivalent of two trips to the Whole Foods salad bar.

Because they grew so familiar with the design, city hall was soon able to fast-track Vancouver Special projects. Soon, South and East Van were sprinkled with cookie-cutter dream homes—until, like most things in life, white people had to ruin all the fun. The west-side elite preferred trendy British architecture with big fancy gardens and saw this new housing as low-class. Neighbours complained to city hall, and in 1986 zoning laws were changed to put an end to the Spesh—because in Vancouver, NIMBYism never goes out of style.

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